Submarines haven’t made history in the latest conflict, but the Civil War was another matter. About 140 years ago, a Confederate vessel known as the David became the first semi- submersible to launch a successful torpedo attack. Although its target did not sink, the feat heralded a new era of naval warfare and preceded the better-known but more lethal Hunley’s accomplishment by four months.
The David was powered by steam with a locomotive engine, smokestack and a breathing tube protruding above the surface. Its captain would become a Los Angeles man whose family name, Glassell, adorns sites in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
The Hunley, which was powered by hand-cranking the propeller, became the first submarine to sink an enemy ship -- on Feb. 17, 1864 -- but sank itself in the process.
The preceding autumn, on Oct. 5, 1863, the David sneaked up on the Union frigate New Ironsides, which was blockading South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor. The David rammed the warship with its single torpedo, which was attached to the end of a 15-foot underwater spear. The weapon’s 100 pounds of gunpowder rocked the New Ironsides, disabling it and sending Yankee sailors into the sea.
The force of the blast knocked the David’s four-man crew overboard too. When the Union sailors began shooting at them, Capt. William Thornton Glassell and another crewman began to swim away from the David, believing it would sink. They were captured, but the David remained afloat.
Although the two remaining crewmen could not swim, they crawled back into the David, bailed out water, lighted the remaining coal with a lantern and steamed back to Charleston.
The navy of the Confederate States of America was short-staffed as well as short-lived. Its 130 ships, two admirals, few hundred officers and 5,000 sailors were vastly outnumbered by the Union’s 700 ships and 20,000 sailors. And, of course, the Confederate fleet existed for only four years. But it made itself felt in many ways.
William Thornton Glassell was born in 1831 on a Virginia plantation called Richland, to a family whose Southern roots predated the Revolutionary War. In the 1850s, while William was serving in the U.S. Navy, his elder brother, Andrew, headed west during the Gold Rush, settling in Santa Cruz before moving to Los Angeles.
Their sister, Susan, married Civil War Col. George S. Patton I, who was killed during the war. After his death, she settled in Los Angeles too. There, she remarried and reared her four children, one of whom would become the father of Gen. George S. Patton of World War II.
In 1861, when the Civil War began, William Glassell followed the example of Gen. Robert E. Lee and resigned his commission rather than bear arms against his native Virginia. For his allegiance to the Confederacy, he was imprisoned at Ft. Warren in Boston for less than a year.
Ft. Warren’s most notorious inmate was no officer, however. It was the “Lady in Black,” the resident ghost.
According to legend, the bride of a Confederate prisoner had come to the prison disguised as a man to rescue him. During the attempt, she accidentally shot her husband instead of the fort’s commander. Sentenced to hang as a spy, she wore a black dress at her execution. For years afterward, guards on night duty claimed to be frightened by her ghostly presence.
In July 1862, Glassell was exchanged as a prisoner of war and joined the navy of the Confederate States of America.
An innovative officer, Glassell experimented with torpedo-armed rowboats in Charleston Harbor in hopes they could be used to break the Union blockade. He succeeded in blowing up a barge.
Meanwhile, unknown to him, construction was beginning several hundred miles away on a 50-foot, steam-powered, cigar-shaped, underwater torpedo boat designed by a consortium of Confederate businessmen. The precursor of modern submarines was funded by a group of Charleston attorneys at a cost of $50,000.
The new vessel, named for the biblical David, was intended to fight the Union’s ironclad ships -- so named because their wooden keels were encased in metal to make them harder to sink. Completed in September 1863, the David was shipped on two linked railroad flatcars to Charleston Harbor. Glassell volunteered as captain. He was joined by three other men: assistant engineer James H. Toombs, fireman James Stuart and pilot J. Walker Cannon.
“The 5th of October, 1863, a little after dark, we left Charleston wharf, and proceeded with the ebb tide down the harbor,” Glassell wrote in his journal. “A light north wind was blowing, and the night was slightly hazy.... We passed Fort Sumter and beyond the line of picket boats without being discovered.”
The Union’s New Ironsides, patrolling more than five miles offshore, was completely unprepared for the attack. Although submersibles were being tested -- and one had been used as early as the Revolutionary War -- no one believed they could travel so far out to sea.
The David’s attack was so successful that at least 20 more Davids were built. No one knows what happened to the original.
“Near the end of the war, when Union Admiral John A. Dahlgren entered Charleston Harbor in February 1865, he reported that there were nine Davids in the harbor and two more stuck in the mud at the mouth of the Cooper River,” wrote Douglas Westfall in his book “Prisoners of the Civil War: The Story of Two Americans,” published in 2001 by the Paragon Agency and available through the Web site www.specialbooks.com.
The Union navy learned from its miscalculation in a hurry. Within weeks of the attack, it created wire torpedo nets to protect the bottoms of its ships from being rammed with explosives.
“It was said by officers that the ironclad vessels of that fleet were immediately enveloped like women in hoop-skirt petticoats of netting to lay in idle admiration of themselves,” Glassell wrote in his journal after the war.
Glassell spent most of the rest of the war behind bars. There he contracted tuberculosis, which eventually would kill him.
In 1866, he sailed to California to join his elder brother. His widowed sister, Mrs. Patton, her children and his blind father came too.
The family settled in Los Angeles, where Southern sympathies ran high. Half the city’s residents had migrated from the South. Only 350 of the city’s 1,500-plus votes had gone to Abraham Lincoln in 1860.
In 1869, Andrew Glassell and his law partner turned 1,385 acres of land they owned over to William Glassell.
He laid out a town on 40 acres and called it Richland, after the Glassell plantation in Virginia. In 1873, however, the U.S. Post Office objected because there was already another California city with that name. So William changed it to Orange, the town of his grandmother’s birth in Virginia.
As William Glassell’s health worsened, he took on less of his brother’s business in Orange and returned to Los Angeles in 1874. He died there in January 1879 at age 48, unmarried and childless.
Andrew became a prominent Los Angeles attorney, one of the founders of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn. and a real estate magnate. The Glassell Park neighborhood is named for him, as are schools, streets and a recreation center.
William was buried in Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery in the West Adams district. In the last few years, a veterans group has started putting the Confederate flag on his grave on Memorial Day.
Although there are no known copies of the David in existence today, there is a possibility that one is buried below a street in Charleston. In 1865, one was found tied to a wharf in front of a house. The wharf was filled in five years later, supposedly covering the David.
Recently, researchers using radar discovered a cigar-shaped form underground, but it proved too costly to excavate.